The Original Sin Of Newspapers: Not Innovating

from the yes,-indeed dept

There’s this concept out there in the newspaper world, pushed by Alan Mutter more than any other, that the “original sin” of the newspaper industry was failing to charge when they put their content online. This is simply wrong. Many did try to charge, and they failed, because no one paid. However, Steve Buttry has a post making a much better point. The real “original sin” by newspapers wasn’t failing to charge, but failing to innovate. Basically, the entire competitive landscape and the entire marketplace they were used to changed. Entirely. And nearly all of them seemed to think that they could get by doing the same basic thing they had always done.

These days, they’re blaming everyone else for their problems: bloggers, readers, Craigslist, Google, some unknown “aggregators.” But the simple fact is that these newspapers were incredibly fearful of innovating themselves, and basically let all those other sites online do the innovation for them. And now they’re upset that the traffic goes to the innovators? At every turn in the game they were free to innovate themselves. They didn’t. To then step up late in the game and look for legal and regulatory support to hold back those who did innovate seems inherently ridiculous.

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Comments on “The Original Sin Of Newspapers: Not Innovating”

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Anonymous Coward says:

news. on paper.

Explain the innovations on that?

Are the newspapers online? yes.

Is there a format available that allows people to enjoy the news in all the places they currently enjoy the newspaper? No.

Is there any coming? Give it another 5 – 10 years, maybe kindle version 6 will be able to do it.

You are mistaking product for distribution method again Mike. Perhaps you could innovate on your selection of stories (rather than “newspaper buggy whip” “copyright buggy whip” “patent buggy whip”). You have worked yourself into a rut.

fogbugzd says:

Re: Explain the inovation in that

The problem is that they didn’t really innovate when they did try to go to the web. They basically took the local news and put it online. By contrast, look what CNN has done. There are lots of opportunities for readers to have input and communicate.

I think that it is ironic that one of the reasons newspapers are in trouble is that they did indeed innovate back in the 1980’s. At one time newspapers were run largely on the instincts and experience of the editors and local owners. They spent a lot of money on veteran reporters who knew the local beats. They covered local news. In the 80’s newspapers started applying rational management principles. Veteran reporters and local news is expensive. It is a lot cheaper to buy filler material than have local reporters write about it. They decided that it is a lot cheaper to hire a fresh youngster than keep the veteran on staff. The cub can go to city council meetings and write a story. Granted, the cub didn’t catch the undercurrents or have an instinct to dig for real stories, but the column inches still got filled up. However, in doing so they lost the community interest in the newspaper, especially among young professionals. The main readers of local papers are now senior citizens who are happy with the filler material and fluffy human interest features. Newspapers lost the eyeballs of the younger demographics, and the advertisers followed the eyeballs.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Wow. Seriously missing the mark here.

So you can’t enjoy online newspapers the same way you enjoy a physical paper. So what? Newspapers have been complaining about losses of sales, which clearly means that less and less people care about reading news through a physical means.

Or at the very least, it means people don’t care enough to pay for it.

Mike isn’t saying the newspapers will fail. The newspapers are the ones saying their failing, and Mike is simply saying why.

They’re simply doing the same thing GM did – making a product that is losing demand. They didn’t do enough innovating to follow the users demands, and thus they’re losing their chunk of the market.

Kirby (profile) says:

Too true

Contrast something like the New York Times web presence with CNN. Both have a large overlap in content and mission. But while the Times is arguing over pay walls vs. free, CNN has no trouble providing the same news for free. They have commentary from smart people, video, news alerts, lots of areas of interactivity. I don’t like it all, but there’s just so much more going on, on When I hear about something big going on, I don’t go to, I go to Or other tv networks – Fox News and MSNBC (pick your side!) also have better websites than most major newspapers. Why should this be? Even aside from video content, the majority is text, generated in house or from wire, and they are obviously superior to the Newspaper sites.

And the newspaper wants to start charging? Why on earth would I ever pay for that, instead of using

They can cry all they want about losing, but it’s really not that they were taken advantage of, it’s that they squandered the inherent advantage of entrenched position, others either didn’t (cable news) or new players stepped in and took the space (Google, blogs taking over editorial commentary very well, the rise of websites doing original reporting like Talking Points Media). The game’s not over – there’s a market for good journalists, and people still consume news. But I suspect good journalists will collect a paycheck from CNN and MSNBC, or from one of hundreds of independent organizations, and less so from newspapers, in the future.

It’ll all work out. We’ll still have a free press, original reporting will still happen. Possibly with more corporate masters, possibly with less, certainly with different. Painful for those that don’t survive the transition, to be sure, but for those of us who don’t get a paycheck from the newspaper industry, it’s not really going to be a big problem. I hope that everyone who does bounces back quickly.

Adam (profile) says:

You're forgetting history

Many years ago there was a huge battle between the newspapers and the union representing their typesetters; you know, the folks who put little hunks of lead with letters on them into frames to set the type for the newspaper’s next edition. The newspapers wanted to switch to lithography and after a long struggle and lots of concessions, they made it. Every single innovative proposal made since has met with the same resistance — doing something new would eliminate union jobs that had been in place for a long time.

I think that was an important factor in their failure to even consider innovations.

BobinBaltimore (profile) says:

Re: You're forgetting history

Adam, really good point. There is so much more to this “lack of innovation” than just a confused web strategy. Newspapers are saddled with history, decades or even a century or more of union domination, complex labor and distribution agreements and such. Some of that is self-inflicted, some of that was mandated from without. Newspaper companies had diversified to a degree, but that was largely destroyed with all sorts of government administrative rulings over how many papers, or paper + TV, or paper+ radio combinations could be owned within one town or nationally. There are a few that have navigated all that and kept a somewhat diverse footprint, but most bailed and stick pretty close to print.

It’s also important to note that newspaper printing is a capital-intensive operation. Printing plants and distribution networks take a lot of money to build and maintain. This creates cost overhead and operational inflexibility which is difficult to overcome.

I’m not suggesting that we weep for newspapers, but you are right to point out that there are factors – internal, contractual and governmental – which have stifled innovation for 30 years.

Jerry in Detroit (profile) says:

RE: Original Sin

If the there is any great sin committed by the collective media it is their disassociation from their readers. They apparently expect to write anything at all regardless of association with reality and expect us to buy it. My measure on any newspaper is will they communicate with their readers? Try sending an e-mail to a writer whose article you recently read. If there is no method to do so, they can be dismissed as disassociated.

Brad Eleven (profile) says:


I remember the NYT going online circa 1995 for free, then putting up the pay wall (Times Select) and then taking it down in 2006. I guess I could research the history, but … meh.

Your point is well taken, i.e., CNN is a more interesting site. In fairness, they’re also part of a mondo television production network. CNN’s got its own problems, though … something about credibility, as I recall.

I think these are both still apples, though. I got to this article because someone I trust–a real person whom I know personally–read it and noted it as interesting. In a more innovative medium than email.

Dave (profile) says:

Failure to innovate isn't the only sin.

The Radio Ink article, “NPR Launches New iPhone App” ( is indicative of another type of self-inflicted soon-to-be-mortal wound, that is by-passing your source of sustenance. While corporate contributions are significant, NPR receives the majority of its revenue from affiliate stations. By offering their valuable news content on-line and for free, they are undermining the affiliates and destroying their base of support. One day soon, we will be hearing that taxpayers will be providing additional amounts to keep them alive.

Instead, they should offer teasers at their Web site and a list of affiliates linking to the stations’ Web sites where listeners could download podcasts AFTER they have aired.

It’s true that innovation must happen but it must be done correctly or the apple cart will tip over.

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